Dallas Cowboys: How Did Dez Bryant's Injury Affect His Play vs. Steelers?

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 17, 2012

Dez Bryant might very well be sacrificing the future for the present by suiting up despite requiring surgery to repair a fractured index finger on his left hand. But at least he and the Dallas Cowboys were rewarded with a victory Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, making it a little easier for Bryant to literally risk limb in order to take the field. 

There was some concern early that Bryant was merely out there as a decoy because he wasn't much of a factor in the first quarter. He wasn't able to grab the only pass that came his way in that quarter, but the throw from Tony Romo was a little high.

By no means was it a drop, and the coverage from Keenan Lewis was good, but it still caused Jim Nantz to say, "You gotta wonder about the hand."

He caught the second pass he was targeted on, but that didn't come until there were just a few minutes remaining in the first half. He certainly appeared to go out of his way to cradle it a little more than usual, rather than just snagging it, but it likely didn't affect the final outcome of the play (15 yards and a first down).

Bryant says that catch gave him the necessary confidence to have a big second half.

"(The finger) felt way better than I thought," he said after the game, according DallasCowboys.com. "It took the first catch and then after that I felt the ball, you know, with that velocity in the game. I felt like 'oh, I got it.' I got it throughout the game."

The best look we got of Bryant's hands on his touchdown catch came as CBS was going to break, so the image isn't great and you can see graphics invading the shot. Sorry about that, but all that matters is that you can see Bryant secure the ball using both hands equally. It wasn't thrown with a ton of zip, but that's a great sign nonetheless. 

The other two receptions Bryant made were definitely "body catches," but in neither case did it negatively affect the final result of the play. One was a screen, and the other was this grab for a first-down pickup against Lewis:

The first borderline drop Bryant had came on what could have been a second touchdown score in the fourth quarter.

But I'd actually argue that the hand wasn't the reason Bryant couldn't pull that in. It was a back-shoulder throw to the right side of his body, which meant his right hand had to do the majority of the work and the left hand had to merely provide support.

The pass had a ton of velocity on it, making it hard for Bryant to corral it using his right hand, which would have been necessary regardless of the health of the other hand. Here's another angle:

The second "drop" he had came with only a few minutes to play and the game tied, so it could have been costly. The throw was high once again, but Bryant had both hands on the ball and then let it pop out.

CBS color guy Phil Simms suggested that because both hands were on the ball Bryant likely dropped the pass because his eyes weren't on the football. And since Bryant insisted after the game that he felt no pain, it's hard to draw the conclusion that he dropped it because he was distracted by the injury. This might have just been a coincidence. 

Still, Bryant entered Sunday's game having dropped only one pass in six weeks. He was targeted nine times in total but caught only four balls. That's 44.4 percent, which is his third-lowest total of the season and is well below his overall catch-per-target percentage of 69.4 (per Pro Football Focus).

So Bryant didn't have his best game against Pittsburgh, but we've been able to provide semi-satisfactory explanations for three of the five passes he was unable to haul in. The other two had nothing to do with Bryant at all (poor passes or good coverage, or both). 

The fact is the Steelers have the best pass defense in the NFL, so Bryant might have finished with identical numbers regardless of how many fingers he was able to use against Pittsburgh. 

He still managed to score for the sixth game in a row and now ranks third in the NFL with 10 touchdowns. Plus, three of his four catches were for first downs.

Bryant's impact also goes beyond the box score. He's inspiring this team with his bravery and his dedication to helping the Cowboys continue their playoff push. They now control their own destiny, despite all of the hardships they've dealt with, and Bryant is a massive reason why that's the case.